Incorporating acro into the dance school rotation of classes has become increasingly popular over the last 5-10 years. Back when Deb and I were growing up dancing (all those many years ago!) the level of expected acro was at most a basic walk over. Now however, it’s almost a pre-requisite that you can do a barani at minimum by the time you are 10. Dance schools are catering to this so called ‘need’ in the community by creating dedicated acro classes, which usually run for an hour 1x week. A whole host of skills are being taught in this relatively small time frame and this can lead to some dancers even going outside of the dance school externally for improvement of specific tumbling skills and advancements in their acro capabilities.
Acro skills look impressive within a routine, there is no doubt about it. However, there is the debate that dancers are now required to not only be dancers – but acrobats as well. Is this a good avenue to be going down? The opinions are probably divided. From a dance physiotherapy point a view, the most injuries we see are usually from acro and unfortunately most of these injuries are related to the spine. Repetitive stress injuries to the spine and surrounding muscles/ligaments are becoming more common than we would like. But why is this and most importantly how can we aim to prevent them? I have highlighted below a few key points that I believe create a perfect storm for back injuries in acro within the dance community:
1. Insufficient warm up: The dreaded warm up. The part of dance most kids and unfortunately a lot of dance schools miss. They are missing the opportunity to stretch/awaken/re-align the muscles and joints that may be sore and stiff from a long day at school (heavy school bag anyone?) and previous classes, especially if you have had an extended break between those classes and have cooled down in between. If you are going to be putting your spine and hips into demanding positions, it’s really important they we don’t do this cold. Taking that extra 10 mins prior to acro class to do some targeted stretches and dynamic movements can make all the difference. If there is not enough time in between classes for you to do this, it’s imperative that the acro teacher knows this and allows time for it in the class schedule.
2. Insufficient anterior/posterior core: Core is so important for all dancers but especially when assessing our acro students all too commonly we are seeing a real lack of front and back core. Core is not your 6 pack abs! Let me repeat that. You can have an amazing toned tummy and be doing 100 sit ups a day and still have terrible deep core control. Our core muscles are not only in the front of our bodies but also the back. Think of the deep core as like a corset for the spine. The demanding positions that acro places on the bones and joints of the spine means we must have sufficient control of that corset.
3. Progressed too quickly: Sometimes the issue we see if that the dancer is simply being progressed in his/her skills too quickly. It takes time for the body to build up the specific strength and skill acquisition required. This has to be done slowly and in small increments. If they are being pushed along too quickly this can create problems.
4. Expectations Vs Reality: We have all been there – we watch someone else in the studio or maybe on Instagram and they make it look so effortless! So we try to copy and compete. But what if you really just aren’t up for that skill yet? Maybe you don’t have the required flexibility or strength yet? Drilling it over and over and forcing your spine and hips into unhealthy positions may not be such a good idea. Comparing yourself to others is natural however is a dangerous slope to be on in the acro world. All too often we are treating injuries in dancers who have simply pushed themselves too quickly and beyond their means in order to keep up or stay ahead.
5. Teacher and dance school training/knowledge: All the above-mentioned points can come back to the dance school and teacher to some degree. Ensuring a proper warm up, not progressing skills too quickly and educating the kids on the comparative differences in their bodies is vital to injury prevention. It’s worth stating here that proper advice and exercises for core strength can be challenging for a teacher and this is where a physiotherapist can come in handy to help educate and encourage proper practice!